October 11th, 2010
After spending time amongst the wineries of Yamanashi, esteemed British wine critic, Janis Robinson, declared, “Koshu wine is something uniquely Japanese and cannot be found anywhere in the world. It is very delicate and pure.” Her subsequent championing of the new generation of Koshi, coupled with enthusiatic reviews from International wine awards, has made the wine community sit up and take notice.
“But still,” I hear you say, “Japanese wine – isn’t that an oxymoron?” Well, the Koshu wine in question is far removed from the cloying alco-cordial that has been characteristic of domestic wine in the past. Years of development and improvements in viticulture have resulted in the Koshu wine of the Yamanashi region finally reaching its true potential.
Koshu, the only indigenous Asian grape, has a long history, arriving in Japan over 1000 years ago via the Silk Road. The new generation wines are subtle and dry with hints of citrus & stone fruit, reminiscent of a low-alcohol Pinot Gris, which, it’s makers say, makes it a perfect match for Japanese cuisine.
Curious to put this theory to the test, we beat a path to Akane Shokudo, in Shirokane, an eatery which does a Japanese riff on French bistro style dining, and where all of the ingredients & beverages are sourced from domestic purveyors – a practice I heartily endorse.
The shop’s interior of whitewashed walls, cafe chairs and blackboard menus give it a rustic ‘French’ air and the ambrosial smells that emanated from the kitchen were inviting, as were the staff.
We began with an aperitif of Kudokijouzu Kamenoo junmai ginjou nigorizake (くどき上手 純米吟醸亀の尾にごり酒). ‘Pick up artist’ by name, ‘pick-me-up’ by nature, this fresh and effervescent sake was a great start to the proceedings. We matched it with a selection of starters: (from the left) simmered okahijiki (land seaweed), tomato and nametake (wild enoki mushroom); homemade ika shiokara (squid fermented in salt); and celery & cucumber pickled in garlic soy sauce. I think I was overly ambitious in ordering the ika shirokara, as its strong ammonia smell and pungent fish taste forced us to admit defeat after one tentative tasting. Chalk that one up to experience.
Sashimi is my favourite food, bar none, and as such it is the dish that can make or break a dining experience for me. The moriwase of akami maguro, kinmedai and tennen tai (as opposed to ‘unnatural’ snapper, I suppose) was of good quality, though I thought it was lacking in knife skills and flair of presentation. Pedestrian is the word that I think best sums it up.
Thankfully, the grilled nasu (aubergine) and shuto (the salt pickled entails of katsuo) was much better executed and, for me, the stand out dish of the night. Shuto is an acquired taste, to be sure, but unlike the ika shiokara, this was delicious; its piquancy mellowed by the juicy aubergine it was paired with.
The drinks menu is comprehensive, with a good selection of wines by the bottle, shochu, sake, and spirits – all from well regarded Japanese brands. There are half a dozen koshu available by the bottle, but after chatting to our obliging hostess, we were able to sample a couple of the wines by the glass, instead. Our first glass was the Grace Koshu 2009, a crisp pale yellow wine with fresh fruit and citrus aromas that reminded me of a Pinot Gris. Grace Winery is undoubtably Japan’s best known producer of koshu; its wines are served to first class travellers on both JAL & ANA airlines, and its Grace Koshu took out the grand prize at the 2007 Japan Wine Challenge.
We followed it up with the a glass of the Alps Wine koshu, which had a deep golden color and rich aroma reminiscent of green apples and pears. Had it been a blind tasting I would have sworn that I was drinking a riesling. We immediately abandoned the idea of ordering a different bottle from the list and ordered up another round. Superb!
The chef’s classical French training became evident in the next dish of seared scallops with ‘Japanese’ cream sauce, which was divine and paired perfectly with the koshu. The scallops were plump and delicious, with a nice acidity coming from the confit tomato garnish. The sauce, a reduction of fish veloute and cream, was exceptional, rich and morish.
The small portions of tofu, in the tofu and jakko (fried whitebait) salad with a blue seaweed dressing, seemed to get lost in the mix, which was something of a disappointment given it should have been the hero of the dish. Tasty, none the less.
Nikomi is a cheap and hearty dish that I associate with shitamachi izakaya, where you often spy a vat of motsu (offal), in a rich miso based soup, bubbling away at the counter. My companion thinks of himself as something of a nikomi aficionado, so was keen to sample the kitchen’s French interpretation of shiro nikomi. The stock was a classic mirepoix, into which tripe and vegetable were slowly stewed. The broth (which I sampled) was fragrant and lightly seasoned and the motsu (which I didn’t) was cooked to perfection, according to my companion.
Jakko age – dry, overcooked bullets of blah, that were in dire need of a sauce or dressing to accompany them. Next!
To round out the meal we ordered two vegetable plates: Handmade tsukemono, brined in vinegar as opposed to salt – a nice little post meal digestive, and steamed organic vegetables with sides of homemade aioli and basil oil dressing. It was a relief to end on a positive note after a slightly inconsistent meal. The kitchen produced some highs and lows; the former seemed to be the more French inspired dishes, where we could see the chef’s real passion come through, while the latter were Japanese dishes, which lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
Is Akane Shokudo worth the 10 minute hike from Hiroo Station? Hmm… Possibly not. However, its efforts to champion local produce, matched with reasonable pricing and genuine service, definitely earn my admiration. And, thanks to wines that I sampled here, my appetite for koshu has well and truly been whetted.